An iconic predator, as beautiful as it is deadly
What you need to know about the Orca Whale
Our Expert Says… "Although a siting can never be guaranteed, there's always a good chance of seeing these amazing creatures on your cruise. Their high dorsal fin gives your guides and crew a head start in spotting them even at a distance. They are so iconic, if you're having a fantastic encounter, the guides and captain might decide to cancel a planned landing or excursion just so that you can enjoy being among these beautiful and intelligent marine predators."
The orca or killer whale is one of the world’s most iconic predators. Its stunning black and white coloring, 1.8m (6ft) dorsal fin, and efficiency as a hunter put it high on the list of “must-see” animals for polar travelers.
Although officially one species there are currently debates among scientists about reclassifying orcas into distinct subspecies or even separate species. Although found in every ocean in the world, orcas do show distinctive variations in size and shape among various populations distinct enough to warrant debate about their classification.
Apart from the most northerly Arctic waters, orcas can be found in both northern and southern polar waters. Some of the highest densities of orcas can be found off the coasts of Norway and in the sub-Antarctic southern oceans. Their huge range and widespread distribution make it difficult to ascertain how plentiful they are, but there is a consensus that there are at least 50,000 individuals worldwide.
Although known as toothed whales, orcas are actually the largest member of the dolphin family. Males grow to around 7.5m (25ft) long and weigh in at 6 tons, with females being shorter and lighter. Like other members of the dolphin family, orcas have excellent echolocation senses using the reflected returns of clicking sounds they make to find prey and avoid obstacles.
Killer whales have no known predators and they hunt in packs. Antarctic orcas can be seen “wave hunting”, where they swim in groups together to cause a large bow wave that washes over ice floes, dislodging seals or penguins resting there into the water and into the path of other waiting orcas.
Orcas have a varied diet, with some differences depending on which part of the world they live in, but it includes fish, squid, turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals, including other dolphin and whale species. On average a killer whale will consume 230kg (500lb) of food on a typical day.
It’s well known that orcas have a highly complex social structure based around close family bonds. Loose groups of orcas, known as pods, gather together based around shared family lines. Larger groups, known as clans, may also gather. These will all share some family connections, and also show similar “acoustic signatures” in their calls. Killers whales are one of the few animals who experience menopause and then live on long after they lose fertility. Females can usually fall pregnant until they are around 40 years old, and then go on to live to about 70 or 80.
Orcas have the second-heaviest brain of all marine mammals and have been observed problem solving and actively teaching their calves hunting skills rather than relying on them to simply copy. An Alaskan population have learned how to steal fish from longlines and have overcome tactic and methods used by fishermen to try and prevent them from stealing catches.
Despite their fierce reputation, there have been no confirmed fatalities to humans caused by wild killer whales, and very few reported deliberate attacks.
Orca Whale: Pictures from our travelers
Spots where the Orca Whale can be observed
A gateway to the ultimate adventure that only a few will be lucky enough to experience.
Located at the northerly tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Sound is a remarkable onslaught for the senses as you come face-to-face with monstrous slabs of ice, now floating free as enormous tabular icebergs. These have broke away from ice shelves in the Weddell Sea and drifted into the Sound.
Treacherous to early explorers, the first vessel to successfully navigate the Sound was The Antarctic, the vessel of the Swedish Nordenskjold expedition of 1903. Unfortunately, she was trapped in the Weddell Sea by ice the following year and crushed - one of several vessels to have that fate over the decade.
Fortunately, modern polar cruising vessels have no such worries with their strengthened hulls and modern navigation technology. As you enter the monochromatic beauty of white ice and grey sea you will know that that you are soon going to experience some of the remarkable sights and encounter the wonderful wildlife that makes its home in these islands of snow, ice, and rock.
New Island - also known as Isla de Goicoechea in Spanish - is one of the Falkland Islands. A long, thin island with both steep cliffs and sandy bays, it’s 150 west of the Falkland’s capital, Stanley.
Despite its position on the westerly edge of the islands, New Island was one of the first to be visited and colonized. There is some evidence that whalers from America may have landed here as early as 1770. In 1813 a ship from Nantucket was wrecked here and the crew survived for two years before being rescued. They built a simple stone shelter which now forms part of the oldest building in the Falklands.
With stints as a base for guano miners and whaling companies, New Island proved to be uneconomical to exploit in these ways and was left for the wildlife to thrive. Now a wildlife reserve and registered Important Bird Area (IBA), New Island is a beautiful sanctuary for many Falklands and Antarctic species to breed and live.
Penguins, in particular, take advantage of the shallow beaches and rolling shores on the eastern coast. Five species can be seen here, including large breeding colonies of gentoo and southern rockhopper penguins. King penguins are also found here, as well as petrels, shags, dolphin gulls, Falklands skuas, and many more, with around 41 species breeding.
Sea lions and elephant seals can also be found hauled up on the beaches or swimming idly in the sheltered bays.
Puerto Madryn, in the northern part of Patagonia, is a whale-watching hotspot. This city of 100,000 people is protected from the pounding South Atlantic by the Golfo Nuevo. It grew from a tiny settlement built by Welsh immigrants in 1865, who gave it its Welsh name of Porth Madryn.
This is a cheerful, bustling city with plenty of modern facilities for shopping, dining, and pleasure-seeking. But the true star of the show is the Golfo Nuevo and the creatures that make its waters and shores their home. This makes Puerto Madryn the perfect place to explore the area.
The whole Valdes Peninsula supports an abundance of wildlife. From elephant seals, sea lions, and penguins, to whales and dolphins, and innumerable seabirds, the region teems with wonders.
After a day of wildlife watching, what better way to recharge than with a superb local steak or some delicious seafood in one of Puerto Madryn’s many great restaurants?
South Shetland Islands
The South Shetland Islands are a group of rocky islands only about 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Several countries have research stations on the islands, with most being found on the largest island, King George Island. It’s here, at the Chilean Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva, that there is a 4000ft runway that sees over 200 flights a year bringing people and supplies to and from the Islands and wider Antarctica.
Most of the islands are covered in ice for much of the year, but they are still home to large populations of Elephant and fur seals, as well as huge numbers of penguins and Antarctic sea birds, being the most diverse area in the whole 'peninsula' region. Frequent encounters here include gentoo, chinstrap (often one of the key species for landings in the South Shetlands), a few Adélie penguins colonies, and the odd Macaroni penguin pair or lone bird. Also Weddell, crabeater, and leopard seals, as well as and orca, humpback, and minke whales, with fin whales, and even southern bottlenose Whales, see on the approach close to the drop off to deeper waters.
Black-browed Albatross do not breed but can be seen, usually offshore in the Southern ocean, but also in the Bransfield Strait.
The Yalour Islands (also sometimes called Jalour Islands) are a 1.5-mile long group of small islands and protruding rocks off Cape Tuxen in Graham Land. The islands were discovered and named in 1903 by the French Antarctic expedition led by Charcot.
Most of the Yalour Islands are steep-sided or unsuitable for landing due to sea conditions, but the largest island has some cobbled beaches where you can put ashore.
Visitors come here to make the short climb up from the beach to the Adelie penguin breeding colonies. There are thought to be around 8,000 breeding pairs of Adelies in the Yalour Islands, and they have nested on every bit of rock they can find that’s not snow-covered. It makes for an amazing sight as you come in to land on the beach!
Photographic opportunities here are excellent. The high mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula form a stunning backdrop to shots of the Adelie nest sites. Your expert guides will lead you around, showing you the best sites, and answering all your questions about the penguins and their lives.
As Adelie Penguins have decreased in numbers just to the north at locations like the Petermann Islands, the Yalour Islands have become a popular location to see this species. Even if it is a challenge to get ashore with the swell, or, the snow banks earlier in the season, the colonies are easily observed from a Zodiac. The area can be a good spot for seals, and for Humpback Whales offshore.